I've found a great tool to help me take my Spanish to the next level - the Chrome extension Lingua.ly. (There is also an Android app which I have not used, with the iOS app in development, see below.)
When learning a language, the first step is to master basic vocabulary and to discover how the language works. For many learners, a step-by-step "closed" learning system works well, one that has you practice all four skills. (For Spanish, I did this with our own online game-based Spanish 1 course.)
But what then? Language learning is like an inverted cone. Ideally, you start with a few words and build on these slowly. But once you have a base of a few hundred words and expressions, your vocabulary can easily expand dramatically - if you read a lot.
Enter the Lingua.ly Chrome extension. With this chrome add-on, you can turn any web-based text (news article, blog, email, etc.) into a vocabulary-learning adventure. Find a text on the web (or take Lingua.ly's suggestion available for five major languages, English Spanish French Arabic Hebrew). When you come across an unfamiliar word, just double click it. (You can actually choose how to tag the word you want to look up; I use the double click.) A window will pop up with suggested translations (supported by the Babylon.com dictionary) and an audio gives you the pronunciation of the word.
I've been using Lingua.ly for Spanish now for a week. In the last few of days I've chosen to read blogs and articles about the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márques. Getting an immediate translation and the pronunciation of unfamiliar words has made my reading efficient and enjoyable. And, as a bonus, each of the new words goes into a flashcard list for later practice.
Practicing Your Words
The "word practice" function has several cool features. To help you remember a word, you can click to add a Bing image that suits you. You can also add your own "word pack" of up to 30 words, or choose one out of a series that the program suggests. You'll practice words in "smart intervals" of spaced repetition: words that are hard for you show up again sooner than easy ones.
Languages For Learning
Lingua.ly claims that the Chrome extension add-on works with 20-plus languages. Besides Spanish, I have tried out and (minimally) tested 10 of them, all for translation into English. They are: German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Mandarin Chinese. In these languages, the occasional word doesn't have a translation, and some of the audios are missing. Still, I was amazed that, in general, all the various types of script work just fine.
In addition, I used a Spanish news article to test Lingua.ly's translation into the other languages I know or am learning: German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Portuguese. As far as I could tell, each of these work fine too.
I focused mainly on Spanish and tried out just a limited number of language combinations. You may find that Lingua.ly's chrome extension can be used for other languages with English, or with various other language combinations as well.
I recently spoke with Meredith Cicerchia, Director of Communications & E-Learning at Lingua.ly, and learned a few more interesting facts about the program:
As you do your reading, the program tracks what you click on and what you've been exposed to.
As you progress, a rating system starts to guess your level and the kind of vocabulary you're interested in.
The program algorithm then pulls articles from the open web that correspond to the level of your working vocabulary and to your interests.
The more you use the program, the better the article selection becomes.
Lingua.ly is also working on translations for phrases and word combinations.
The iOS app for iPhone/iPad is expected to be released in June 2014.
Over the coming months, you'll see further refinements and improvements to a program that is already very useful to intermediate and advanced language learners that like to read online. My own lingua.ly practice always ends with me smiling, as I look at the last "congratulations" screen with its funny moving images...